The pandemic has brought about a sea-change in working patterns in the UK – and the tide shows no signs of turning any time soon
As the Covid-19 virus began to take hold in the UK last year, workforces across the country scrambled to set up operations from home, in line with government guidance. Over one year on, as the UK emerges from a string of lockdowns and a winter that has wrought a huge toll, many employees are still working from home (WFH), while others have begun to venture back to offices. It is no exaggeration to say that the pandemic has left an indelible stamp on working practices and working culture.
A long-term trend
Some doomsday predictions back in 2020 forecast that high streets would die as the UK’s major corporations moved to permanent WFH, but the mood among many companies is that they are planning to return to the office – for one, there has been a recent surge in firms hiring admin staff as they prep for a full reopening of the doors.
There is an appetite to get back to the office, but many companies will offer increased flexible working going forward. A hybrid model appears to be a common approach, with employees having greater opportunity to split their time between the office and their kitchen/living room/spare bedroom desks. Nationwide is a case in point. The UK’s largest building society has launched a new ‘work anywhere’ scheme that will allow its 13,000 staff to choose where they work.
As part of the hybrid working model that many companies are adopting, hours will be increasingly flexible, as firms speed up the shedding of the traditional ‘9 to 5’ which, by all accounts, was being phased out in a number of sectors before the pandemic.
Studies have found that WFH can boost productivity. A recent study of 2,000 employers by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a professional association for human resource management professionals, reveals that one-third say the move to WFH has increased the productivity of their staff, as opposed to 23% who believe it has decreased productivity. And according to a TalkTalk survey published in September 2020, more than 58% of workers believe they are more productive as a result of WFH.
A catalyst for change
The pandemic has served as a catalyst for workplace change. Concern for employees’ welfare and mental health, already a hot topic pre-pandemic, has been enhanced amid fears over a blurring of work-life boundaries in a year punctuated by stay-at-home orders. With staff away from the traditional supportive frameworks of the office, a focus on mental health has been front and centre for businesses both large and small.
Zoom and Teams became household names almost overnight back in March 2020, with video technology serving as a vital way to keep geographically disparate workforces connected. Virtual video communication is here to stay, and Big Tech will be rushing to expand on the opportunity.
Will we see holographic representations of employees who are off-site, but can still take a seat at the meeting room table? Microsoft certainly thinks so. The tech giant recently announced the launch of its ‘Mesh’ cloud service, which will allow developers to build applications through which people can communicate with colleagues in virtual avatar form.
The past year has wrought great damage, whether that is the wrecking ball taken to the UK’s economy or the appalling death toll. Everyone’s lives have been touched in some way or other. Yet flexible working may be one silver lining to come from a rather large cloud. Companies have understood they can operate effectively with employees WFH, handing their staff greater autonomy and boosting productivity. They have, in short, realised there is a business case for WFH, and both employers and employees are set to reap the benefits in the long term.